The introduction provides a rare glimpse of Rod’s perspective on the strip at the time of this collection’s 1984 publication: “I’d like to start off by saying that I have always been regarded as a bit of a character, but it wasn’t until after I married Lynn that I realized I could be a mold for a cartoon character! Or that what we did with some of our leisure time could result in more little characters. But I have to say it’s been an enjoyable treat. I ran into a dentist friend whom I hadn’t seen since we graduated. As soon as we met, he said, ‘I know all about you!’ It made me realize that readers think the characters in the strip correspond exactly to members of our family. It certainly made me pay more attention to editing Lynn’s strips. … Meanwhile, we survive each day wondering if we are being fair to our kids. We get mad about dumb things that maybe we shouldn’t – after all, mud washes off the carpet. We hope above hope that the kids will turn out okay. When I feel most insecure about parenting, I often open up one of the For Better or For Worse collections. For me, it’s like a scrapbook, and I realize that we are doing all right, and what’s more…we are having fun. …”
The Pattersons and their daily habits are beginning to feel familiar, having been in the newspapers for four years by this point. The usual situations are promptly revisited: Elly was doing housework (sorting the kid’s summer clothes and put them in a green garbage bag), John gets nagged for trying to help and doing it wrong (he thought the bag was garbage and threw it away), Elly has coffee with Annie and complains about John and gets caught being hypocritical (as she accuses John of not thinking, she forgets to take her soup off the stove and it burns), Elly serves new food to the kids and they don’t like it (they prefer canned soup to homemade). This leads in to a series of strips of the Pattersons doing their income tax returns and John begins to feel the approach of middle age. Elly gives him a back rub to cheer him up and he grins ludicrously in delight. Several months later, John is melancholy again, feeling that he and Elly are in the autumn of their lives and winter is just around the corner.
John accompanies Michael as he tries to sell chocolate bars to raise money for the school, but winds up buying all the chocolate bars himself after an unsuccessful night of going door-to-door. He then tries to bond with Michael by showing him what a workshop is for and helping him build a go-kart. Michael is at first uninterested, but does go along with his father, and John responds by not telling Lawrence and Gord that Mike didn’t build the go-kart all on his own.
Elizabeth has discovered that she can manipulate her father by sweet smiles, pretty dresses or the threat of tears. After Farley is taken to the vet for “garbage gastritis”, Lizzie is jealous that everyone is paying attention to Farley and goes to her father for a hug, claiming that she doesn’t feel well. She saves her bad behaviour for Elly, refusing to wear the outfits Elly chooses or eat Elly’s cooking, won’t do what Elly asks of her, looks as Elly as if she’s stupid, and throws temper tantrums which John says shows that Lizzie takes after her mother. Elly hopes it’s all a phase Lizzie is going through, one she hadn’t expected until her daughter was fifteen. She also worries that Lizzie is using too much baby language when she is old enough to speak properly. She wonders where Lizzie is picking up incorrect English, then says, “Nizzie tum sit Mommy’s wap an’ we brussa hair!” (Yes, “an’” – Elly has been the source all along.)
Elly takes Lizzie to visit Uncle Phil and he confesses that he’s thinking about getting married to Georgia and imagines the house, the garden and the kid, only for Elly to screech, “Don’t pour beer in Phil’s trumpet, Elizabeth!!” and Phil silently decides against children. A week later Phil brings Georgia over for dinner and she tells Phil afterwards that she wouldn’t mind being part of his family. What could have been a romantic moment for a proposal is spoilt by Michael leaning out a window to ask if they get to breathe while they’re kissing. Mike asks Lawrence if he knows what it feels like to be in love so he knows what to avoid; Lawrence says that he will never fall in love because he hates girls…except for Janice, who is better than a girl and can blast a spitball fifteen feet without even trying. The buck-toothed, freckled Janice joins the gang of Mike’s friends.
Summer holidays begin and Deanna offers to compare report cards with Mike, but he refuses because her marks would be higher. He’s far more enthusiastic about the roller skates Gord has just received for his birthday and wants his own pair. Elly agrees, provided that Michael does chores to earn the money. After weeding the garden, brushing Mrs Baird’s dogs and cleaning all the Pattersons’ shoes and boots, Mike has just $12 and figures he’ll never have enough money to buy his own skates. Gord offers to rent his skates to Mike for $2 an hour, and he will tell Mike when the hour is up. Mike tells Elly what happened, expecting her to be angry at him, but she says that it was his money and that he has probably learned a lesson. Gord’s mother makes him return the money and Mike buys a pair of second hand skates after John spots a pair in a classified advert.
The Pattersons take their first family trip out to Manitoba to stay with John’s sister Bev and her husband Danny. Farley stays behind in a kennel and Connie and Ted look after the Pattersons’ house. Mike and Lizzie pull their toy space guns, bought by John to keep them quiet on the flight, on a security guard, who submits the family to a weapons check and then nearly miss their flight. Laura introduces the kids to all the farm animals and Bev rolls her eyes at Elly’s suburban attitudes, telling the kids not to get dirty in the barn and wearing earrings to help in the fields. Mike learns to ride a horse, or at least to hang on while the horse does whatever she pleases, and Lizzie tries to steal a kitten to take home.
Upon their return to Milborough, John teases Elly about how it was nice to see her working for a change while she was on the farm. Rather than shouting at him, she tells him how it makes her feel – “lazy, useless and stupid” – but instead of apologizing he asks why she can’t take a joke and accuses her of being too sensitive, taking every little jibe seriously. Mike teases Elizabeth that Elly is thinking of giving her away, when all she is doing is re-registering Elizabeth for another year of day care, and Elly sends him to his room and tells John that Mike is just like him, a practical joker and an awful teaser.
Elly first hears about Phil and Georgia moving in together when John is drafted to help move Georgia’s piano. Elly hits the roof and demands to know if their mother has been told, adding that she’d have been disowned if she moved in with John before they were married. Phil says it’s a more liberal age now and Elly insists that he gets away with things because he’s male: he got a bike first, the latest curfews, putting water in the vodka – he’s always had life easy. Phil sighs that Elly has always made up for that, and says that she’s unbelievable, still hanging onto the things that happened when they were kids, like when he broke her walking doll or charged the guys a nickel to watch her dress. John says that there would have been advantages if he and Elly had lived together before they were married – for instance, he’d have had the chance to back out.
John gets an evening of babysitting when Elly goes to a library meeting. He makes wieners and beans for dinner (“Beans and I understand each other”) rather than following the cooking instructions Elly left, nags Mike to do his homework, reads Lizzie a story – he explains later to Elly that the evening went well after he handled them the way his father handled him: first with kindness, then with understanding, then he threatened their miserable little lives.
Right before Hallowe’en, Elly puts the family on another diet after she’s unable to fit into a new pair of trousers. When she meets Annie for a coffee morning, she is delighted to see that Annie is feeding baby Richard (now with a name!) canned baby food and using disposable diapers after all her insistence upon homemade organic food and cloth diapers for Christopher. Annie suggests that they throw a “Grubberware” party and Elly’s diet goes out the window as she and Annie fill the house with baking. John and Steve decide to steer well clear of the house on the night of the party and go out to pick up Mike’s Hallowe’en costume – Count Dracula, “appropriate for a dentist’s kid, don’t you think?” (Lizzie wears clothes and make-up of Elly’s). John pops the false fangs in his mouth, dons the black cape and, at Steve’s urging, leers through the living room windows at the party guests. The women arm themselves with frying pans and attack John and Steve, thinking that there was “some nut case” outside the window; Elly says that there was.
Michael feels ignored by his teacher, so flips an eraser at Brad Luggsworth’s head, which the teacher sees. Brad threatens Mike after class and Gord and Lawrence slink away, leaving Mike alone to get beaten up at the end of the day. He confides in Elly that his life is being ruined by Brad – the impression is given that this one fight is hardly the only confrontation they have had, as Mike says they’ve fought, he’s told on Brad, he’s tried leaving Brad alone – and she advises him to confuse the enemy by being nice to him. He doesn’t think it will work, but tries it anyway and Brad agrees to be friends; Mike faints at the news. Gord and Lawrence are nonchalant at the news, wondering what they will do for excitement now.
Elly and John call a sitter on short notice and go out for dinner. Elly spots Fred Willis with someone who is not his wife June and makes catty remarks about the woman’s dress leaving nothing to the imagination; John disagrees and says it leaves a great deal to the imagination, leering at her. John and Elly gossip about Fred and June and what they should do, and John suggests that they switch tables so they can get a better look at the person Elly calls, “that – woman!”, but Elly decides to confront the cheating Fred directly, only to discover that it hadn’t been Fred in the first place.
John takes Mike shopping for Elly’s Christmas present and Mike uses his allowance money to buy a glass angel. Despite John’s warnings, Mike can’t resist playing with it and it breaks. John accuses Mike of never listening or doing what he’s told and Mike begs John not to be angry because he’s sad enough as it is. He puts the broken angel back in the box and John promises him that things will look better in the morning. Mike cuddles his teddy and tries to sleep. The next morning Lizzie finds the box and shows Mike the angel, completely intact. Mike asks John if he went back to the store and exchanged it after Mike was in bed. John asks him if he’s too big to believe in Christmas magic and Mike throws himself into John’s arms saying, “No, but I’d rather believe it was you.”
Elly has a post-Christmas meltdown over all the weight she has gained and her lack of will power. John suggests that she pop by the clinic and he could wire her jaws shut. She growls at him and he thought-bubbles that both their problems would be solved if he did so. Elly makes a New Year’s resolution to get into shape and she and Connie sign up for an aerobics class. John begins to wonder if he ought to be concerned about his level of fitness and Ted laughs at him for letting other people influence him too much. Jean points out that John always returns to work in a bad mood after his lunches with Ted, who she finds chauvinistic, childish, opinionated…John says that they had to cut lunch short anyway because Ted had a family therapy group to counsel. Back at the Patterson home, Annie asks what the latest news is with Connie and Ted’s relationship. Elly says that they are gossiping about poor Connie again and Annie says that it isn’t gossip because they care about and understand her, and are her best friends, then tells Elly to “Gimme the dirt!” Elly replies that Connie figures that, with enough talking and understanding, Ted will stop being a jerk, except that Connie is the one doing all the talking and understanding.
Elly tries again to approach Mrs Walsh, the Valley Voice editor, for a salary to cover her gas and babysitting expenses, but is again told that their gratitude is their payment. They settle on giving her a free subscription to the paper and a parking sticker for Elly’s car and she feels that it’s better than nothing. In time, the volunteer work pays off and Elly is offered a job with the local library, working on their children’s program. She goes in three mornings a week and can do a lot of the work from home or bring Elizabeth to the library with her. John supports her as her salary will help cover the mortgage, and envies her because she’s so happy and he remembers that he used to like his job once. Elly will be organizing puppet shows, children’s films, workshops, lending video cassettes, promoting live theatre and starting a story hour for pre-schoolers. She tells Connie all about it at one of their aerobics classes and afterwards goes back to Connie’s house for a chat. She returns home in a fury (John thought-bubbles ironically, “Hark…the light of my life returneth…” as the door is slammed with such force he drops the newspaper and his glasses nearly fall off). In the middle of a conversation with Connie, Ted had yawned and asked Elly when she was leaving, so she grabbed her coat and left. John says to Farley that Ted’s methods were always crass…but effective.
One winter afternoon, Lawrence, Gord, Darryl and Janice push Mike in front of Deanna and try to say that he loves her, but he interrupts and says, “I hate Deanna Sobinski”. Deanna storms off and Mike tries to make amends by giving her the prettiest valentine he has. Although he left it unsigned, Deanna said that he was the only one watching when she found it on her desk. Darryl finds out about the valentine and the teasing begins again as Deanna disdains Mike’s friends as “such children”. Mike goes to Elly for advice on having a crush and she recalls that, when she was in school, she had a crush on one guy for three whole years and wrote him very affectionate notes which he’d show to all his friends and they’d laugh and tease her. Mike listens to her story and says he’s learned never to put anything in writing.
Gord begins to exert an influence over Mike, taking him to Crazy Eddy’s Arcade despite Elly’s refusal to let him go. Mike is sent to his room when Elly finds out, and he wishes he were more like Gord, whose parents don’t care.
Mike celebrates his ninth birthday and John reminisces about his previous birthday parties. Lizzie asks if John is telling stories and Mike calls them re-runs. Uncle Phil invites the Pattersons over to dinner to show off his new wok (it is the 80s after all!) and gives Michael a trumpet for his birthday present. (Incidentally, this is Michael’s second trumpet, as Elly’s parents gave him one for Christmas in the second collection, although it was never seen again.) The series ends with Michael starting to learn to play the trumpet, with Uncle Phil as his teacher, and Elly imagining that he could one day be a principal trumpet in a symphony or maybe even a member of the Canadian Brass, while in the background Michael is busy trying to balance the trumpet on his head.
Recurring characters introduced:
- Janice (Madigan, although her surname isn't stated)
- Aunt Bev and Uncle Danny Cruikshank, John’s sister and brother-in-law, who live on a farm in Manitoba with their daughter Laura and Danny’s unnamed mother (just referred to as Grandma, but is not Grandma Carrie)
- Brad Luggsworth, Mike’s classmate and school bully
Incidental characters mentioned:
- Paula, the babysitter who plays dirty by threatening to tell all the kids in Mike’s school that he still sleeps with a teddy unless he goes to bed on time.
- Grandpa Vern, Uncle Danny’s father
- Arnold, who helps out Danny and Bev on the farm but doesn’t talk much to women, thinking that their place is in the kitchen
- Mike’s fourth grade teacher, Sheila (not to be confused with Shelagh Campbell, his first grade teacher). She lives in an apartment on 5th street with her machinist husband and two kids (one with a learning problem). Her husband is allergic to nuts. They drive a blue Chevrolet and have a yellow budgie…but we see her only once at the front of the classroom.
- Dental patient Miss Wilson
- Mrs Nedwitt and Doris, guests at the Grubberware party
- Fred and June Willis, unseen friends of the Pattersons
- Stan, Gretchen, Barb and Kenny – people who send John and Elly a Christmas card and might be relatives, even though the Pattersons have no idea who they are
- Susan and Monique, Elly’s co-workers at the library
- Humphrey, Michael’s class hamster, who stays with the Pattersons for a week – and survives
Minor biographical details:
- Elly mentions that Elizabeth is three years old as they make Easter bunny cookies in the spring of 1983. Elizabeth’s fourth birthday would have been 26 June that year, so the three-year age freeze hadn’t yet begun as she still would have been born in 1979 and not 1981 as her current bio states.
- Phil is nearly 33 (Georgia, who said in the previous collection that she was 7 years younger, must be 26).
- Elly used to have a 24 inch waist
- Ted has four university degrees but, according to Connie, can’t figure out the knobs on a dishwasher
Don’t bother me while I’m working
Mike and Liz bother Elly while she’s typing, wanting to know when dinner will be ready, and she ignores them and then yells at them. This scenario was first shown in the very sixth strip of the entire comic when Mike interrupted Elly repeatedly while she was sewing to ask where his father was; she finally shouts at him, “He went to Thailand in a rowboat!” which Mike dutifully repeats when someone phones asking to speak to John. It was used again just a few weeks later when Mike wanted to ask Elly for things he knew she’d refuse, and knew she wouldn’t be paying attention if he asked while she was typing.
John is a jerk
Elly takes John to see her library and asks John if there’s anything he’d like to take out. John ogles Susan, her shapely colleague.